Maeve McClenaghan writes at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism😐
Huawei is not yet a household name in the UK – for one thing, there is confusion over how to pronounce it – but the Chinese telecommunications giant is spreading its reach around the world. But accompanying its global expansion are worrying whispers of covert surveillance and espionage.
This year Huawei’s revenues overtook that of its competitor Ericsson, making it the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment. The Economist sets out to chart the rise of the behemoth, and explores the myths surrounding the beast.
It’s not hard to see where concerns come from. The company has close links to the government, the Economist explains, and founder Ren Zhengfei served in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) engineering corps. According to the article, some critics of the telecommunications company worry that the technology is being used as a Trojan horse, with technological ‘backdoors’ to allow China’s spooks to eavesdrop.
Even more dramatic is the suggestion that the technology could contain ‘kill switches’, allowing China to disable any Huawei system in the event of conflict.
Such worries are not just the domain of conspiracy theorists. In India the company has been called a threat to security. Meanwhile in the US the House of Representatives intelligence committee has taken a keen interest in the company, and government opposition has thwarted attempted buy-outs of US firms by the Chinese company.
One former member of the joint chiefs of staff tells the Economist: ‘We’d be crazy to let Huawei on our networks, just crazy.’
But the Economist finds no solid evidence that such practices are going on. Indeed, the article notes, western companies are not scared of cosying up to government. A 2008 investigation by Wired found Cisco boasting to the Chinese government of its technology’s surveillance potential in cracking down on falun gong members.
And earlier this year CNet reported the FBI has proposed forcing internet companies to build backdoors allowing it to monitor social networks and online conversations. The Economist adds that American officials have also called for the installation of ‘backdoors’ in some US exports, allowing covert access to exported technologies.
To what extent, then, is this a case of sour grapes? Huawei is the new kid on the block and is already taking over the neighbourhood. It has won government contracts in Canada and New Zealand and dominates the market in Africa, where it undercut Ericsson and Nokia by 5% to 15%.
This market competitiveness may be due, in part, to subsidies from the Chinese government. Last year Huawei admitted its customers benefited from access to $30bn (£19.3bn) in potential ‘export financing’, although how much of that was used is unclear. Chinese and European officials have apparently met to try to negotiate an avoidance of a war over subsidies.
In the UK, the company is regulated by the ‘Cyber Security Evaluation Centre’, set up by Huawei and curiously located in Banbury. The centre works in collaboration with GCHQ to test networking equipment and software that will be sold in the UK. Such tests are seemingly welcomed by the company. ‘Believe no one and check everything,’ Huawei’s global cyber-security officer John Suffolk tells the Economist.
Is this enough to reassure us? The Economist article certainly sows seeds of doubt – its cover shows Huawei mobile phones towering over a cityscape, imprinted with Chinese flags and huge all-seeing eyes.
But the article doesn’t prove the company is the Orwellian monster suggested. Instead, we are shown a company playing – and winning – in the global markets. Of course the potential of such technological permeation is worrying, but without evidence of wrongdoing we cannot be sure if the monster is a legitimate threat or another imagined boogey-man under the bed.
Read the Economist’s article ‘Huawei: the company that spooked the world’ here.
Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism